A Ballets Russes’ treasure finds a new home at the State Library of New South Wales

Just when it seemed there could be no more treasures to be unearthed from de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ tours of Australia, the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales has acquired an exciting new gift – a series of 12 photo albums one of which contains photos of the dancers at play in Sydney on two different Sundays in January 1937.

The albums were donated by David Allen, grandson of Arthur Wigram Allen, who was the head of the law firm, Allen, Allen & Hemsley, a director of J C Williamson Ltd, and a balletomane.

They contain photos taken by Margaret Allen, one of Arthur’s daughters, on 17 and 31 January at Little Turriell Bay at Port Hacking, where the Allen family hosted picnics at Moombara, their home. (Scroll down to see all the images and click on the photos to enlarge).

Margaret, a keen photographer, following in the footsteps of her father, Arthur, took the photos as the dancers swam, played in the sand, and struck ballet poses for the camera.

These dancers were members of the first de Basil company to visit Australia, in 1936/7, a troupe titled the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet.

On 27 January 1937, Betty Scorer, one of the dancers present at the first picnic (with her husband, Alexis Frank), wrote to her mother in England: “We had a nice picnic on Sunday with the whole company…”

The setting was “a perfect place on a salt river – full of sandy islands. Lots & lots of quite large octopus on the rocks & marvellous starfish & anemones in the pools”.

In his diary, Arthur wrote of the first picnic:

“The weather was marvellous. Most of the girls went upstairs and changed into their bathers.

“The party, including Daryl Lindsay, ate chicken and cold meats and there was a great run on the asparagus grown by Edgell of Bathurst.

“A great many principals came and played the guitar and others instruments beautifully…

“J C Williamson sent in all sorts of cakes. E J Tait [a director of JCW] arranged enough food for everyone but in addition he asked everyone who had a car and was bringing a party down to bring a hamper also.”

“At 4 o’clock I ordered tea for about a dozen people in the dining room mainly for the benefit of Mrs T H Kelly [a society grand dame] who had just arrived…Mr Tait had previously told me that there was to be no tea, but to my surprise the Afternoon Tea turned out to be the piece de resistance of the whole party.

“About 5.30 some of the party left but it was after 6 before they left in numbers. I drove Mr Haskell back to town: it was in his honour that the party was really given.

[Arnold Haskell, the writer, was the eyes and ears for Col de Basil on this tour, the first of three de Basil companies to tour Australia from 1936-40].

“Denis & Margaret thoroughly enjoyed the day, they did all the honours at the bathing place and boatshed while I looked after things at the house: in fact I never left the house all day.

“Fortunately there were no speeches to mar the day. Margaret took lots of photographs of members of the party when they were on the sands on the other side of the river. Mr O’Brien was wonderful with his speedboat and added greatly to the pleasure of the visitors.

“It is wonderful to think that we had about 100 people at Moombara today whereas in the old days we limited our picnic parties to about 40 as we considered that was all the house could accommodate.

“Today everything went splendidly and there was not one thing to mar the day. The flowers were beautiful and later in the afternoon I gave them to anyone who wanted them.

“The expense of the party was borne by JCW Ltd. I had no part in it except to fix my own table…Most of the Russians took their food from the JCW men who gave them what they liked, but several of them who sat at my table seemed to enjoy the Australian food especially the asparagus…

“It was a very eventful day for Moombara and we could never really expect such a beautiful day again for so large a party… I was terribly tired all evening and went to bed early”.

Many of the dancers returned to the city in a private bus. On board they invented a crustacean ballet, L’Apres midi d’un prawn, described in a press report (I don’t have the details of the paper or exact date).

“Out of paper bags came the prawns in their pink tights. They leapt from seat to seat, from deft fingers to cupped hands ready to ‘support’ them.

“They made their entrechats in the air in the approved Nijinkskish manner, and executed fouettes and pirouettes like a ballerina assoluta…

“The corps de ballet caught them by their whiskers. Rose tipped fingers decapitated them. Geranium lips attacked them.

“The frail bodies of the prawns squeezed upwards from their pink ‘tutus’ after the fashion that children manipulate bananas and demolish ice-cream cones”.

Unfortunately, there are no photos of the prawn ballet!

Also present at the picnic on 17 January was Sam Hood, a freelance photographer commissioned by J C Williamson Ltd to document the event. Those photos are already in the Mitchell Library collection.

The library credits the Margaret Allen photos as taken by Baroness Margaret Gifford as, on 5 March 1937, Margaret Allen, married Lord [Charles] Gifford in Brisbane.

Gifford had been the ADC to Sir Philip Game, when Game was governor of New South Wales.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, 6 March, 1937, explained that Gifford, who “flew from London incognito, using the name of Charles Maurice, reached Brisbane at noon today, and at 3 o’clock was quietly married to Miss Margaret Allen, daughter of a well-known Sydney solicitor.

“A fortnight ago Lord Gifford in London, proposed to Miss Allen, in Sydney, by radio telephone.

“The wedding was to have taken place at Coochin Coochin* station on Saturday, but the Dutch plane which should have reached Brisbane on Friday arrived only today.

“So the bride, who, with her sister, Mrs John Bavin**, was awaiting Lord Gifford’s arrival at the station, returned to Brisbane and the wedding took place at Miss E. T. Bell’s home at Ascot”.

Margaret Allen’s photos are not yet digitised. The photos you see here are taken from the albums at the library.

The people in the photos are all dancers with the exception of the artist, Daryl Lindsay, who sketched the dancers on their tours and Alexandre Phillipoff, de Basil’s representative on the 1936/7 tour.

The dog, Apsia, was found as a stray by Betty Scorer and Alexis (Alosha) Frank, and left in the care of the Allen family when the dancers left Australia.

The male dancers in Margaret’s photos are Alexis Frank, Valentin Froman, Serge Unger, Leon Woizikowsky and Igor Youskevitch.

The female dancers are Valentina Blinova, Ann Northcote, (Anna Severska), Nina Raievska, Lelia Russell, (Lelia Roussova), Betty Scorer (Elisabeth Souvorova), Audrey Williams (Olga Valevska) and Sonia Woizikowska.

The Mitchell Library call number for the album containing the ballet photos is PXE 1598/ box 12.

Thanks to the Mitchell Library’s Robert Woodley for identifying the dancers.

If anyone knows the names of those dancers not yet identified, I’d be very happy to hear from you.

* Coochin Coochin, one of the oldest surviving homesteads in Queensland on the outskirts of Boonah, the junction of the Great Divide and MacPherson ranges was owned by the Bell family.

** Marcia Allen married John Bavin, son of Thomas Bavin, who was Premier of NSW from 1927-30.